A Majority If You Can Keep It

As you can imagine, Republican pundits have been quick to seize upon John Judis’ “recantation” of the hypothesis of the book he and Ruy Teixeira published in 2002, The Emerging Democratic Majority, in a new essay for National Journal. I offered my own take on what I called Judis’ “recalibration” here.

But the most noteworthy reaction so far may have been from that honest conservative analyst Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics. He notes that the “demography as destiny” charge against the Judis/Teixeira book is misplaced:

While the debates over demographics and future elections have become filled with triumphalist rhetoric about ascendant coalitions and Republicans potentially suffering a Whig-like extinction, these are the views of popularizers and partisans who have latched onto the book for their own purposes.

“Emerging Democratic Majority” itself contains none of these things.

Trende also notes that many creditable analysts who rely on some of the insights in that book–Teixeira himself, plus Alan Abramowitz, William Frey, and Ron Brownstein–don’t share Judis’ current judgment that there is a small but significant “Republican advantage” that is emerging.

But the most valuable thing Trende reminds us of is that the 2002 book wasn’t just a bunch of charts and demographic projections, but rather a passionate argument that the path to a Democratic majority involved a careful balancing act among constituencies and a suspension of hostilities between “centrists” and “populists.”

[W]hile Judis and Teixeira’s book is today remembered as being about demographic and political trends, at its core it was really about ideology. It grew out of an in-house fight among Democratic factions in the wake of the 2000 loss. One side thought Al Gore lost because he hadn’t emphasized social issues enough to energize the upper middle class. The other thought that Gore lost because he wasn’t populist enough to win over working-class voters.

Judis and Teixeira sought to split the horns of this dilemma by synthesizing the two claims, arguing that Democrats should embrace what they called “progressive centrism.” Progressive centrism remains a somewhat vague term, but in essence it was epitomized by Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign: Embracing populist/progressive goals, but opting for solutions that were free market enough to not scare off upper-middle-class voters (in the case of economic issues) and respectful enough of traditions not to scare off working-class voters (in the case of social issues).

A lot has changed since 2002, most particularly the degree of “tradition” working-class voters demand on “social issues,” and also the dying of the last embers of hope that the “long boom” of the 1990s, in which middle-class wages did briefly rise, could be reignited. But Trende is right that Judis and Texeira always held that it took a lot more than demography to build a Democratic majority.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.